There’s a small treasure in Brazil’s state of Rio Grande do Norte. It’s “The Sao Tome Philharmonic”- an orchestra rich in youthful talent located in the country’s impoverished North East.
The orchestra operates out of a small cultural center in Sao Tome, where it offers free music classes and instruments to the many low-income youth in the city and surrounding areas. Many of the newly- trained musicians are young women.
“It’s very important. It means constant learning,” says 14-year-old Eulanicleia Marylylyane who is learning French horn at the orchestra and now plays there a few times a week. Her four sisters are studying music at the orchestra as well.
“We are all a group and it is important to my life,” she says.
Sao Tome’s Maestra, Paula Francinete, is the only female conductor in the entire state. She says this and the general “machismo” of the region made it initially very hard for her to get young women to sign up to play instruments.
“This was a very male setting at least here in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, until I became Maestra of the philharmonic, says Paula, a music major and single mom who travels from four hours away to teach and conduct the orchestra three days a week. “ It’s a big responsibility,” she says.
Now half of the 42 musicians in her orchestra are women. And almost half of those say they’re planning on turning the music they are learning into lucrative careers.
“I would like to be a professional musician and I applied to the music department at university this year,” says Raquel Silva, 22, who learned clarinet in the orchestra and now plays it there alongside several male counterparts, like 21-year-old Magnus Acariz De Sousa.
Magnus says the orchestra has given him more than just music. “I made new family and relationships that motivate me,” he says.
Residents of Sao Tome created the orchestra with a grant from a poverty reduction project backed by the World Bank. The project aims at generating economic and social opportunities in Rio Grande do Norte.
Resident Josefa Maria De Oliveira says Sao Tome used to have little to offer to its high school students until The Sao Tome Philharmonic came along.
“(S)he improved very much because she can finally be enthusiastic about doing something she loves to do,” she says of her daughter, Luisa, who now learns and plays trumpet at Sao Tome, and is hoping to study music soon at university.